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What was the Iran deal?

Arguments for and Against the Iran Nuclear Deal

The nuclear deal between the US and Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a 2015 agreement through which the US committed to providing significant sanctions relief to Iran on oil and weapon trade in exchange for Iranian compliance with substantial restrictions on its nuclear activities. The deal also included unfreezing significant sums of US dollars, hundreds of billions, in offshore Iranian accounts. The restrictions were designed to delay, but not ultimately prevent, Iran’s nuclear breakout time by ten years through a regime of monitoring and verification to be applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA.



What happened to the deal?Maximum Pressure, Maximum Success? Effects of Trump's Iran Policies

In 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally terminated the deal as it failed to protect US national security interests and reimposed heavy sanctions on Iran, known as the Maximum Pressure Campaign. The JCPOA enriched the Iranian regime allowing it to expand its malign activities against the US and its allies, destabilizing the Middle East, threatening regional stability, growing the threats of its missile program, and becoming the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism, projecting power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, all while maintaining and preserving its nuclear research and development capabilities. The decision relied heavily on Israeli intelligence that revealed that Iran was being systematically deceptive about its nuclear activity and that it entered the JCPOA in bad faith.


Where are we today?

  • On September 13th, 2020, presidential candidate Joe Biden pledged to offer Iran “aBiden in newly surfaced video declares Iran talks 'dead' | The Hill credible path back to diplomacy” to rejoin the JCPOA and end the Trump administration’s Maximum Pressure Campaign.
  • On February 18, 2021, the Biden administration announced its acceptance of the invitation from the European Union to meet with the P5+1 countries – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States – with Iran to find a path back to the JCPOA. It also rescinded the Trump administration’s UN request to activate the “snapback” sanctions against Iran.
  • On April 9, 2021, the US started indirect negotiations with the Iranian regime to rejoin the JCPOA. The talks were mediated by Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, under the chairmanship of the European Union.
  • On April 13, 2021, Iran announced it started to enrich uranium at the 60% level using advanced centrifuges, a major breach of the original JCPOA. This level of enrichment brought Iran closer to the 90% level, which is weapons-grade. European diplomats issued official statements warning, “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.” “We are producing about 9 grams of 60% enriched uranium an hour,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told state television. President Biden later stated Iran’s move was “unhelpful.”
  • After multiple rounds of talks, on July 7, 2021, Iranian officials paused the negotiations claiming they needed to wait for the newly elected Iranian President, Ibrahim Ra’isi, to be inaugurated. The State Department stated multiple times that the negotiations process was not “indefinite,” and Secretary Blinken warned Iran against continuing its nuclear program in the absence of negotiations, yet Iranian officials insisted on not negotiating.
  • On August 19th, 2021, Britain, France, and Germany issued a joint statement expressing deep concern over reports that “Iran has produced uranium metal enriched up to 20% for the first time, and has significantly increased its production capacity of uranium enriched up to 60%…Both are key steps in the development of a nuclear weapon, and Iran has no credible civilian need for either measure.” Iranian officials continued to refuse to resume negotiations even though Ra’isi was inaugurated in the first week of August.
  • On October 25th, 2021, US Envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, stated that the US’s patience was wearing thin and that Iran’s advances in the nuclear program would make a return to the JCPOA impossible. Malley then said his famous statement, “you can not revive a dead corpse.”
  • On November 8th, 2021, Tehran stated three conditions to return to the negotiations, the US must recognize its fault in ending the JCPOA, lift all the sanctions implemented by the Trump administration, and guarantee that no future US administration will be able to abandon the agreement.
  • On November 29th, 2021, talks resumed in Vienna.
  • The indirect talks continued intermittently as they were disrupted by public accusations and counter-accusations between Iranian and Western officials. US officials accused Iran of trying to pocket all US-made concessions and keep asking for more.
  • During the negotiations, Iranian-sponsored attacks against Saudi Arabia and US Arab allies doubled. International reports revealed Iran “have conducted a campaign of high-profile attacks against civilian Saudi Arabian and coalition targets in the Gulf” using “a growing arsenal of sophisticated weapons and technology for anti-tank guided missiles, sea mines, explosive-laden UAVs, ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned maritime vehicles, and other weapons and systems.”
  • On December 17th, former US officials such as Howard Berman, Michèle Flournoy, Jane Harman, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, Dennis Ross, and Robert Satloff published a joint statement in which they warned the Biden administration’s current path of negotiations risks allowing the Iranians to exploit the US and further enrich to weapons-grade uranium. They stated, “Therefore, for the sake of our diplomatic effort to resolve this crisis, we believe it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States. “
  • In January 2022, Secretary Blinken warned that Iran was “getting to the point where its breakout time, the time it would take to produce fissile material for a bomb, is getting down to a matter of a few weeks,” he said. “Second, it continues to acquire knowledge and build up expertise such that at some point in the relatively near future, even going back to all of the restrictions of the JCPOA will not recapture sufficient nonproliferation benefits.” Iran could “break out, even with the JCPOA restrictions, at a much faster rate,” he added.
  • On January 24th, the Wall Street Journal reported members of the US negotiating team were leaving their positions due to their disagreement with how the negotiations were being conducted. They believed the US was appeasing the Iranians and not being tough enough.
  • On March 7th, 2022, weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov was filmed congratulating the Iranian people on getting a lot of concessions from the US and the West in the new deal. Reports at the time were confident a deal was being finalized to be signed within days.
  • On March 11th, 2022, a new pause in the talks was announced.
  • On Match 27th, 2022, following side talks in the Doha Forum, US Envoy Robert Malley stated he was not optimistic as the Iranians advanced new demands not part of the original JCPOA. Namely, the Iranians demanded that the US delist the IRGC from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, provide guarantees no future US administration could abandon the deal, and force the IAEA to close its active investigations against the traces of undisclosed enriched uranium found in different sites in Iran.
  • During April and May, negotiations remained on pause, with each side accusing the other of being responsible for stalling the talks.
  • In May, the Wall Street Journal revealed Iran used stolen IAEA reports to evade nuclear investigations. Iranian officials used such reports as a guide to falsify data and fabricate stories to conceal the nature of actual work in the Iranian nuclear program.
  • On June 8th, 2022, the IAEA passed a resolution censuring Iran for failing to explain traces of uranium at three undeclared sites. The resolution stated “that unless and until Iran provides technically credible explanations for the presence of uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at three undeclared locations and informs the Agency of the current location(s) of the nuclear material and/or contaminated equipment, the Agency cannot confirm the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations under its NPT Safeguards Agreement.” The resolution, sponsored jointly by the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, passed 30 to 2, with three abstentions. Russia and China, which have veto power at the U.N. Security Council, opposed the resolution.
  • Iran retaliated against the IAEA by removing 27 cameras that IAEA used to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.
  • On June 9th, 2022, Rafael Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, warned that removing the cameras would be a “fatal blow” to efforts to revive the JCPOA if they are not restored within four weeks. According to Grossi, “U.N. inspectors will only have three or four weeks before they will lose “continuity of knowledge” about the full range of Iran’s nuclear activities.”
  • On June 28th, 2022, Iran and the US resumed another round of talks in Doha which ended without results. After the end of the talks, a US official said that “chances for Iran nuclear deal worse after Doha talks.”
  • After the two days of talks in Qatar, it was exposed that Iran’s nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri-Kani traveled to Moscow immediately after the talks ended.
  • At the end of June 2022, Iran conducted successful tests for launching a satellite rocket. US defense officials believe such technology is a dual-use technology and could be used to carry nuclear heads.
  • On September 8th, 2022, the US sanctioned four Iranian companies and a defense contractor for providing drones to Russia for use in Ukraine. Russia has been offering Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics, and air defense. Tehran also sought to purchase Russian fighter jets, attack helicopters, radars, and combat trainer aircraft worth billions of dollars. Iranian pilots reportedly started training in Russia to fly the Sukhoi Su-35, an advanced fighter jet, in the spring of 2022. The Su-35 would significantly strengthen Iran’s air force relative to its regional neighbors.
  • On November 3rd, 2022, at the sidelines of an event in California, President Biden told a woman that the JCPOA was “dead, but we are not gonna announce it.”
  • On December 3rd, 2022, Rafael Grossi warned that Iran had tripled its capacity to enrich uranium at 60% level or near weapon grade.
  • On December 9th, 2022, the US imposed sanctions on three Russian entities connected to Moscow’s growing military relationship with Tehran. This relationship includes transferring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Iran. The Kremlin is deploying these UAVs against Ukraine, including large-scale civilian infrastructure attacks.
  • On December 17th, 2022, Iranian officials stated that the country’s enrichment capacity has reached more than twice the entire history of this industry.” IAEA officials assess that Iran has an estimated 62.3 kilograms (137.3 pounds) of uranium enriched to up to 60% fissile purity.  To reach the 90% level from this is a very short leap.
  • A report by the Washington Post described the new cooperation between Iran in Russia as “unprecedented and growing.” Moscow and Tehran are collaborating in a manner that could be described as a defense pact. The Russians have used swarms of Iranian-made drones to attack Kyiv and other locations in Ukraine.
  • The US asked the UN to send officials to Ukraine to investigate the use of Iranian drones in the war in Ukraine, yet the UN refrained from doing so due to multiple Russian threats. This is despite the fact the supply of Shahid-16 drones, used as kamikaze drones, to Russia is a clear breach of sanctions.
  • Russia has also been training Iranian pilots to operate the Su-35 advanced fighter Jets. Israeli intelligence reports revealed that Russia intends to transfer Su-35 jets and S-400 missile defense systems to Iran, which could boost Iranian defenses significantly against its neighbors.
  • A CNN report revealed that Iranian drones operate on various American and Western-made equipment, and it’s not clear how much American technology made its way to Iran despite the sanctions.
  • In February 2023, IAEA reported that Iran’s stockpile of highly-enriched uranium swelled to a record in the last three months and that inspectors are still trying to clarify how uranium enriched to just below weapons-grade was produced at a nuclear facility. The reports “described inspectors discovering on Jan. 21 that two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Iran’s underground Fordo facility had been configured in a way “substantially different” to what had been previously declared. The IAEA took samples the following day, which showed particles up to 83.7% purity.” The reports estimate “Iran’s uranium stockpile as of Feb. 12 at some 3,760 kilogram (8,289 pounds) — an increase of 87.1 kilograms (192 pounds) since its last quarterly report in November. Of that, 87.5 kilogram (192 pounds) is enriched up to 60% purity.”
  • On February 25th, 2023, the EU sanctioned seven Iranian weapons manufacturers and four men in Iran for supplying drones to Russia, which were used to attack government and civilian targets in Ukraine. The list included the IRGC Aerospace Force, six defense firms linked to the Iranian government, and top executives in Iran’s drone industry. Between August 2022 and February 2023, Iran exported hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles, including Shahid suicide drones and Mohajer strike and reconnaissance drones. IRGC teams also provided training to their Russian counterparts on operating drones.

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The Endowment for Middle East Truth
Founded in 2005, The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) is a Washington, D.C. based think tank and policy center with an unabashedly pro-America and pro-Israel stance. EMET (which means truth in Hebrew) prides itself on challenging the falsehoods and misrepresentations that abound in U.S. Middle East policy.

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